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Film and the Arts

"Brits Off Broadway" Theater Review—“Invincible” by Torben Betts

Invincible
Written by Torben Betts; directed by Stephen Darcy
Performances through July 2, 2017
 
The cast of Invincible (photo: Manuel Harlan)
Torben Betts has been called the new Alan Ayckbourn. Too bad, then, that Betts’s play Invincible is messy, heavy-handed and pandering, turning everything that Ayckbourn does so effortlessly in his class-conscious plays into fodder for cheap, easy laughs.
 
In a northern England neighborhood, Emily and Oliver—a newly downsized couple from London—preps for a visit from Alan and Dawn, the husband and wife next door. Although Betts gives his foursome separate identities, he never allows these men and women to become both comprehensible and humane. And right from the beginning, Betts stacks the dramatic and comedic deck.
 
Emily and Oliver open the play discussing Oliver’s dying mum, an apparently horrible (and politically conservative) woman who so offends the socialist sensibilities of her daughter-in-law that she refuses to even consider marrying Oliver to appease his mother before she dies. Emily immediately becomes one of the most unlikable stage characters I’ve yet encountered, and Betts doesn’t stop there. 
 
After Dawn and Alan—both working-class caricatures—arrive, Emily mocks Alan’s lack of talent when he shows his paintings of his beloved cat Vince (named after the ship HMS Invincible, and giving the play its title), then gives a shallow defense of socialism and critique of capitalism so that even the most liberal audience member will find her irritating.
 
Emily’s tone-deafness is one of a series that Betts takes to extremes. Emily and Oliver discuss 16th century British composers Byrd and Tallis with authority and have an oversized, coffee-table volume of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Alan is so dense that he sees that book and thinks the writer was one of the Marx Brothers, leading to a painfully unfunny interlude where he impersonates his favorite comedy team, Laurel and Hardy. 
 
Alan is also a huge fan of football while Dawn and Oliver commiserate over how much they hate it. (Cricket was Oliver’s college sport.) The two women even look blatantly opposite: bespectacled Emily has her hair in a bun and wears no makeup; Dawn improbably wears a tiny dress to show off her bosom and legs, then becomes embarrassed when she’s being leered at.
 
What in Ayckbourn are endearing eccentrics are in Betts’s hands easily manipulated chess pieces: this is most evident in act two, when both couples deal with tragedies involving their sons, an adulterous interlude rears its head and Alan’s beloved cat disappears.
 
Director Stephen Darcy makes it all go by in a whirlwind, and his expert cast—Elizabeth Boag (Dawn), Emily Bowker (Emily), Graeme Brookes (Alan) and Alastair Whatley (Oliver)—both gets laughs and finds the poignance missing from Betts’s script. 
 
Boag, a veteran of previous Ayckbourn plays at Brits Off Broadway, does so much with a mere raised eyebrow or a simple shrug that she makes Dawn sympathetic rather than silly, nearly making Invincible a must-see despite the writing’s deficiencies.
 
Invincible
Brits Off Broadway, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY
59e59.org

June '17 Digital Week II

Blu-rays of the Week 
The Ballad of Cable Hogue
(Warner Archive)
Sam Peckinpah’s 1970 follow-up to his violent masterpiece The Wild Bunch was this often comedic character study of the fiercely independent Cable Hogue’s Old West travails, including a pair of outlaws who are his arch enemies and a “ladiest damn’d lady” he falls for. The material is weak, and Peckinpah dawdles too often throughout an already overlong two-hour running time, but Jason Robards is always worth watching, and the top-notch supporting cast includes Strother Martin, Slim Pickens, David Warner and Stella Stevens. There’s a first-rate hi-def transfer; extras are a commentary and a vintage Stevens featurette.
 
The Blood of Fu Manchu/The Castle of Fu Manchu
(Blue Underground)
By the time of these fairly bland horror hybrids (1968-9), Christopher Lee was already an established name in schlocky B-movies, and he does provide both of these diffuse melodramatic thrillers with their liveliest moments. Director Jess Franco would also find better mixes of blood, thrills and scantily-clad women in his later movies, but he at least enlivens Castle with his unhinged appearance in front of the camera. Both films have solid if uneven hi-def transfers; extras are archival interviews with Franco, Lee and others.
 
The Lego Batman Movie 

(Warner Bros)

If mindless animated movies are your thing, then this sequel to the surprising smash Lego Movie might just be the ticket. True, there are scattered amusing visual jokes amidst the mainly groaning puns and punch lines and in-jokes, but did it really take five writers to cobble this together? The ace voice work of Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Ralph Fiennes, Zach Galifianakis and Rosario Dawson provides most of the fun throughout The Blu-ray looks quite good; extras include deleted scenes, featurettes and new animated shorts.
 
Madhouse
(Arrow)
This unsettling horror yarn about a young woman being tortured by her own insane twin sister, who is preparing a feast for our unsuspecting heroine. There’s a certain cleverness to director Ovidio Assonitis’s cinematic madness, and shooting in Savannah, Georgia makes it less remote and more plausible, despite its many deficiencies. Kudos to Trish Everly, who gives an effectively understated performance in the lead role. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include new interviews, an audio commentary and alternate opening titles.
 
Ugetsu 

(Criteron)

Near the end of his long career, Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi made this elegant-looking 1953 ghost story that’s considered one of his best films, its relative brevity (97 minutes) synthesizing his art down to its very essence. The usual gliding camerawork and sumptuous visual design are brought to the forefront by Criterion’s magnificent hi-def transfer. Extras comprise an appreciation by director Masahiro Shinoda; interviews with the film’s assistant director and cinematographer; commentary by Japanese film expert Tony Rayns; and Kaneto Shindo’s 1975 documentary Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director.
 
A United Kingdom
(Fox)
In this sturdily earnest biopic, Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo give genuinely lived-in portrayals of a white English woman and king of the African nation of Botswana who fall in love during the racist era of the 1940s. Director Amma Asante keeps things straightforward, but this story remains at a certain remove, and it’s not until the real people are shown at the end that we are truly moved, despite Pike and Oyelowo’s fine work. The film does look splendid on Blu; extras are several featurettes.
 
Vision Quest 

The Gumball Rally

(Warner Archive)
In 1985’s Vision Quest, the gifted Matthew Modine evokes real sympathy as a high school wrestler who falls for his father’s boarder (Linda Fiorentino) in an intermittently entertaining would-be romance with a decent mid-‘80s soundtrack (Sammy Hagar, Don Henley, Dio) that hits its nadir when Madonna (as a bar singer) warbles her hit “Crazy for You.” Both films have fine hi-def transfers. Made in 1976 during the mid-‘70s/early ‘80s car-race mini-genre (including Death Race 2000 and Cannonball Run), Gumball is distinguished mainly for its lack of star wattage—only Michael Sarrazin and Gary Busey are noticeable to most viewers—and for its gritty camerawork in the deserted streets of Manhattan at the beginning of its cross-country race.
 
DVDs of the Week
Alone in Berlin
(IFC)
Despite Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson as grieving German parents whose ambivalence toward the Nazis is destroyed after their beloved son is killed on Hitler’s front lines, director Vincent Perez’s handsomely-mounted film moves along predictably as the wife and husband make necessary but ultimately futile gestures of protest against totalitarianism. Luckily, the drama is further authenticated by the presence of Daniel Bruhl, an actor who is always persuasive, here as the main investigator into the couple’s covert activities. Extras comprise interviews.
 
Protocol 

(Warner Archive)
In 1984, Goldie Hawn went to the hallowed corridors of power among Congressmen and other politicians in her inimitable way, disrupting the political system after taking a bullet to her butt when interrupting an assassination attempt on a foreign dignitary. Despite veteran Herbert Ross behind the camera and the always funny Hawn in front of it, a forced sense of humor reigns: occasionally something works, but not enough to justify 95 minutes of increasing desperation.

Theater Review—“Julius Caesar” in Central Park

Julius Caesar
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Oskar Eustis
Performances through June 18, 2017
 
Tina Benko, Gregg Henry, Teagle F. Bougere and Elizabeth Marvel in Julius Caesar (photo: Joan Marcus)
Subtlety is the last thing anyone expects at Shakespeare in Central Park, but Oskar Eustis’s staging of Julius Caesar carries lack of nuance to new heights. This disjointed update of Shakespeare’s tragedy about the intersection of honor, corruption and patriotism envisions Caesar as Donald Trump, a buffoon who has gained the reins of power (no Russian interference here) and who gets his comeuppance at the hands of nationalist conspirators led by his close friend Brutus.
 
Whether he deserves to die is something Shakespeare famously juggles; after all, this is a play with no discernible villains. Brutus’s reasons for stabbing Caesar are compellingly explicated, then immediately afterward Marc Antony tells the assembled mourners that he’s “come to bury Caesar, not to praise him”—and proceeds to do the opposite. For his part, Eustis adds three words to “if Caesar had stabbed their mothers…on Fifth Avenue,” which gets a cheap laugh, and has Caesar’s wife Calpurnia speak with a thick Slavic accent (even if blonde Tina Benko looks more like Ivanka than Melania). Such additions may be superficially amusing, but give little illumination.
 
Gregg Henry does quite well as Caesar despite being straitjacketed by a laundry list of Trump mannerisms: leering, stalking, gesticulating, bellowing and giving those infamous rough handshakes. Henry is even able to keep his dignity during a gratuitous nude scene. Elizabeth Marvel’s bizarre Marc Antony—the Orange Julius’s associate in a track suit who is referred to throughout as “she” or “her”—has an inexplicable (and wavering) hayseed accent that undercuts the rousing “friends, Romans, countrymen” speech.
 
As Brutus, Corey Stoll seems like he’s sleepwalking through the early scenes. That reticence is thrown into high relief when Brutus literally finds his voice after grabbing a microphone for his “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more” speech, where he barks out his lines at the assembled throng. But there’s only a distant sense of a man fatally caught between personal friendship and patriotic duty.
 
John Douglas Thompson’s Cassius, although too excitable—even if this is partly explained by playing opposite Stoll—speaks with his usual fluency and impeccable diction. Impressive in a small part is Nikki M. James, whose powerful Portia provides all of the necessary emotional weight to her husband Brutus’s moral dilemma in a couple of fleet scenes. James deserves bigger roles in Central Park, like Cleopatra, whom she played wonderfully several seasons back in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra at Stratford opposite Christopher Plummer.
 
Eustis stages some marvelously fluid crowd scenes, especially the lengthy dramatics surrounding Brutus and Antony’s post-assassination speeches. Eustis sprinkles members of the ensemble throughout the Delacorte Theater audience to bark out the masses’ impassioned responses, first pro-Brutus, then pro-Caesar and Antony, forcing us to intimately experience how fast such glistening oratory can so swiftly change minds. That’s what comes through most forcefully and clearly in an otherwise off-balance production.
 
Julius Caesar
Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York, NY
shakespeareinthepark.org

June '17 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

Beauty and the Beast

(Disney)
Sumptuously designed and stuffed with ostentatious visuals that compete with the glorious 1991 animated film, this live-action Disney remake is certainly enjoyable, even if it goes on too long and the last 15 minutes are a series of anticlimaxes short-circuiting the happy ending. Still, director Bill Condon’s flamboyant production includes some beloved songs (and a few new ones), a winning Belle in the form of Emma Watson, and spectacular singing by Audra McDonald as an opera diva turned into a large wardrobe. The Blu-ray looks splendid; extras include on-set interviews, featurettes, music video and deleted scenes.
 
Bambi
(Disney)
What might be Disney’s most beloved film—among close contenders Snow White, Pinocchio,  Fantasia and Dumbo—this 1942 classic returns in a new Anniversary edition (although why isn’t it the 75th Anniversary Edition?) that has, as its best extra feature, a beautiful hi-def transfer of the original 70-minute gem itself. Sure, there are many extras—including deleted scenes, a deleted song, featurettes, etc.—but it’s Bambi the movie that’s the main reason for anyone to pick up another stellar Disney Blu-ray release.
 
Evil Ed 

(Arrow)

Arrow manages to unearth films both worthy and unworthy: the latest unworthy entry is this intentionally ludicrous 1995 splatter-movie parody about an editor who goes murderously bonkers after rewatching so many graphic slasher-flick images. It might have worked handily as a short, but stretching it out to an ungainly 85 minutes is its death knell, despite a few hilariously bloody moments and a hospital room finale so inept it has to be a joke—but an unfunny one. The film—which includes the original cut and the Special “Ed”-ition (get it?)—looks decent in hi-def; extras include filmmakers’ intro, new making-of documentary, deleted scenes and bloopers.
 
Fist Fight
(Warner Bros)
I’ve seen a lot of movies over the years that stretch their thin premise way past where it should but this ridiculously self-indulgent would-be comedy pitting two teachers against each other on Senior Prank Day—nerdy Charlie Day and tough Ice Cube—takes its five-minute premise and pads it mercilessly with infantile attempts at humor for another 85 minutes. Both actors deserve better, as does Tracy Morgan, who manages to get laughs despite the paucity of good material. The movie looks fine on Blu; extras include deleted scenes.
 
Rolling Stones—Olé Olé Olé! A Trip Across Latin America 

(Eagle Rock)

The Stones’ recent Central and South American tour was a huge undertaking, since they played places they hadn’t before—notably Cuba—and even if some of this was covered in a previous release, Havana Moon, about the historic Cuba concert, Olé has the added benefit of backstage and behind-the-scenes access to the band’s inner circle and the Stones themselves. Both hi-def video and audio are first-rate on Blu; extras are seven additional full song performances, including a mesmerizing “Sympathy for the Devil.”
Pelle the Conqueror
(Film Movement Classics)
Despite winning the Cannes Palme d’Or and the Best Foreign Film Oscar, Bille August’s intensely epic 1987 exploration of the harsh conditions a young Swedish boy and his elderly father go through after emigrating to Denmark in the early 20th century is a rare film that deserves such accolades. The 150-minute drama is often harrowing, but August displays rich sympathy toward his protagonists, embodied with starkly emotional power by 11-year-old Pelle Hvenegaard and the legendary Max von Sydow (who should have won the Best Actor Oscar that year, not Dustin Hoffman for Rainman). The new hi-def transfer has much authentic film grain, illuminating Jörgen Persson’s photography; lone extra is Peter Cowie’s commentary.
 
Spotlight on a Murderer 

(Arrow Academy)

Georges Franju’s 1961 Agatha Christie-ish mystery, shot in luminous black and white by cinematographer Marcel Fradetal, stumbles badly at the end, but for much of its 90-minute length it’s deliciously nasty fare. There’s a solidly dramatic score by Maurice Jarre, and the exceptional cast is led by Pierre Brasseur, Pascale Audret, Marianne Koch, Dany Saval and a young Jean-Louis Trintignant. The hi-def transfer is excellent; lone extra is a half-hour French TV episode with on-set cast interviews.
 
The Who—Live at Isle at Wight 2004
(Eagle Rock)

This concert appearance at the famed Isle of Wight Festival was the first for remaining Who members Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend after bassist John Entwistle’s death: Roger is in strong voice and Pete is his usual cantankerous self. The excellent set list balances earlier classics from Tommy and Quadrophenia with a nice mix of latter-day tunes like “You Better You Bet” and “Eminence Front,” along with a couple of then-new songs. But why did it take 13 years for this hybrid Blu-ray/two CD version to be released? The hi-def visuals and audio are quite good.

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